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Is It Too Late to Go Back? How to Navigate the World of Adult Education

It can be intimidating to take the first step to return to college as an adult learner. Here's how to start exploring this very attainable opportunity.

Returning to school as an adult may seem impossible at first, especially if it’s been years since you’ve been in a classroom. However, it’s never too late to attend college. Whether you’re looking to start a post-retirement business, finish your degree after taking a break, or simply learn a new subject, the experience is very fulfilling. But before you enroll, you need to have a plan of action for how you’ll choose your school, pay for it, and balance education with your current responsibilities. These tips can help!

Why college may be a good idea for you

There are various benefits of returning to school later in adulthood—or even as a senior citizen. You may regain a connection with academics you lost after working for so long or a connection with the general world after retirement. You may gain new, modern perspectives that you may not have been exposed to in the past and learn more about how current events affect you and everyone else. If you’re an older learner and done with work, going back to school can help you stay busy after retirement and not lose out on an integral community you’ve had for the majority of your life. Humans are social by nature, and a lack of companionship can lead to loneliness and depression, so joining study groups and talking with other students may be just what you need.

Another way to stay engaged as an adult is to learn a new skill. Attending college can help you learn what you need to know to start a business or side gig, complement your income, and help you accomplish your goals, whether you’re retired or not. You also don’t need to return to school for a technical skill; you could attend to pursue one of the liberal arts, like painting or history, simply for the value of a hobby you can continue to enjoy after graduation. The value is in the self-improvement.

Considerations as you explore colleges

Although you have the same desire to learn as any other student, there are some considerations you’ll need to make as a nontraditional student. The first step will be to research potential schools to learn about the programs they offer and the admission process. Determine if your schools of interest offer any resources for adult learners, such as specific programs, counseling, or tutoring services. Once you select a program, you’ll want to look into the costs and how much of your time classes will require.

Certain aspects of college can make navigating higher education more manageable for adult learners, such as opting for schools with smaller class sizes. It’s far too easy to get lost in the crowd in a class with dozens of students. Plus, you likely won’t get the individualized attention you might need. Also, search for programs that focus on applied learning to help you apply new concepts to everyday life. This learning strategy makes retention easier, and you won’t feel like what you’re learning is going to waste.

Paying for college later in life

Listening to the news can make it seem like the cost of college puts it out of reach. How will you afford to continue your education? With a little research, you can find programs that will pay for at least a portion of your education. Look online for scholarship opportunities for older students, like the Next Chapter Award for adults seeking professional certification at AdventHealth University, or the Boomer Benefits Scholarship for students ages 50 and older who’ve returned to school to complete their degrees. There are also grants such as the Jeannette Rankin National Scholar Grant for low-income nonbinary and female students over 35. You’ll be amazed at the many ways to find financial aid. In fact, every state in the country provides some form of assistance for older people to attend school. For instance, students over 60 can attend any California State University campus and get reduced campus fees. In Iowa, people over 65 can take one non-credit class for free each semester.

Related: Scholarship Opportunities for Adults Returning to School

Affording your higher education

Although programs are available, you should assume you’ll be responsible for some (if not all) of the cost of college. If you don’t want to cut too far into your savings or retirement funds, there are ways to make and save money for school. Try driving for a delivery company, becoming a freelance writer, or looking into simple investments to help fill the holes in your budget. One is a certificate of deposit (CD), which you can invest in and then get dependable and predictable returns over time—better than what you’d get from a traditional savings account. If you’re only comfortable with savings, then at least go for a high-yield savings account with a higher interest rate so you get larger returns for the money you save. If you’re still working, be sure to also put part of your check into your 401k for later in life.

Don’t compromise your health or standing commitments

Returning to school may be important to you, but you shouldn’t sacrifice your wellness in the process. It can be overwhelming to tackle college, family, and finances all at once, so create a routine where you have time for work, responsibilities, and relaxation. If you have existing commitments in your community or family, consider night school or morning classes so you’re not doing too much at once. Also make sure you’re getting at least eight hours of sleep at night, as rest is vital for your mental and physical health. It keeps your immune system in tip-top shape against anything you may come into contact with in class. Finally, avoid excessive stress. If a class is proving too complicated or the homework is overwhelming, speak to your instructor and see if anything can be done. 

Related: How to Find Balance as a Working Student

There are many benefits to returning to school as an older adult, but you have to do it right so you can maximize your potential without sacrificing the stability of your personal life. Lean on your social circle and take things one step at a time. It will be worth it in the end!

If you’re a parent still taking care of younger kids, you may be looking for more specific tips, and we have them. Check out this Advice for Parents Looking to Return to Work and School!

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